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When companies sponsor social good, who benefits?

March 24, 2017 at 6:20 PM EDT
Corporate-funded art or culture can easily be called a win-win, says contemporary art curator Nato Thompson. Social justice causes get money and sponsors get the benefit of looking good. But what's the difference between advertisement and actual social good? Thompson offers his humble opinion.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Nato Thompson is a curator of public art, and the author of the recent book “Culture as Weapon.”

Tonight, he offers his Humble Opinion on the confusion created by charitable advertising.

Have a listen.

NATO THOMPSON, Author, “Culture as Weapon”: Like many of us, I was brought being told I should make the world a better place.

As a curator of contemporary art in our public spaces, I often work with artists who share this basic common value. We want to rectify social injustices and to help our fellow humans. Call it do-gooder art, for lack of a better term.

I have seen a growing interest in corporations wanting to support public art. And while I too want to go after the money, sometimes, I have to stop and ask, is corporately funded art just an advertisement? Am I being paranoid? Am I a pawn in someone else’s game?

I don’t think it is just me. I suspect we must all admit a bit of confusion over what is an advertisement and what is actual social good.

For example, every October, a particular color arrives that epitomizes this phenomena: pink. It is the color of breast cancer awareness. And, believe me, I can’t imagine a more important disease to fight. So, please, don’t take my criticism of pink to be a critique of the actual work fighting breast cancer.

But I have also seen, as I am sure you have, a lot of sponsors jump on the pink bandwagon. Sports teams have literally turned pink, from cleat to helmet. Soup cans turn pink. Bowling balls turn pink. Even military fighter jets have turned pink.

Now, I’m all for awareness, but, certainly, some businesses see the pink color as an opportunity to appeal to the female consumer market.

Now, I’m just guessing here. This approach actually has a name. It is called cause-related marketing. One could easily call it a win-win, and, sometimes, my artists and I are the lucky recipients. Social justice causes get, well, money, and sponsors get the benefit of looking moral.

For those of a more cynical persuasion, they might see such efforts as a bit of a shell game, where a company distracts with the image of doing good to take the eyes off practices that are not.

You notice this even at the Academy Awards of advertising, the Super Bowl. A lot of those ads seem to have this feeling as though they are actually out to do good in the world. Maybe they are. Maybe they are not.

The world is a complex place. Wanting to make the world a better and actually doing it are not the same thing. Let’s just be aware of how susceptible we are as consumers to images.

I suggest we should focus on all of the practices of companies vying for our attention, in order to make a better judgment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Curator Nato Thompson, in his Humble Opinion.

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